Monday, 31 December 2012

My 2012 reading

Here's how my reading went in 2012:

How many books read in 2012?
61 books completely read; I've not counted books only dipped into for study purposes.

Fiction/Non-Fiction ratio?
34 fiction and 27 non-fiction.   I was surprised, looking back, by how many novels I've read this year.

Male/Female authors?
23 books by male authors, and 38 by female authors.  I've read more fiction by men this year than in the last couple of years.

Favourite book read?
This year's highlights include Kathleen Jamie's Findings, Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust and, among the novels, Loving by Henry Green, which I read thanks to Henry Green Reading Week.

Least favourite?
I thought Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death would be an amusing holiday read.  It really wasn't.  Thankfully I borrowed it from the library so it only cost me a precious hour or so of time.  I loathed the short story "Cake" in Stella Gibbons's collection Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm and clearly I should rant about books I hate more often, as that was one of my most-read posts this year.

Oldest book read?
Madame de Lafayette's The Princess of Cleves, in Nancy Mitford's translation.  The original was published in 1678, the oldest book I've read for many years.

As I live with the small publisher Victorian Secrets I get to read some books ahead of publication.  This year I got a preview of Carolyn Oulton's marvellous life of Jerome K. Jerome, Below the Fairy City, Maurice Leonard's moving biography of the contralto Dame Clara Butt,  Hope and Glory, and Gary Hicks's fascinating study of Thomas Bish and the early days of the advertising industry, The First Adman.  Do support the small publishers ...

Longest book title?
Not counting titles with post-colon suffixes, I think it must be Jeannette Winterson's memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Shortest title?
Nicola Humble's delightful little book Cake, which really is about cake and is not an antifeminist fable that endorses wife-beating (yes, I know Stella Gibbons can't hear me).

How many re-reads?
Only one this year, Virginia Woolf's  The Years.

Most books read by one author this year?
I've not read anyone in large quantities this year.  Two books by Dorothy L. Sayers, two by Stella Gibbons, two by E. F. Benson, and two by Joe Moran who I see I didn't blog about, but who comes highly recommended as a historian and celebrator of the everyday; the books I read are On Roads and Queuing for Beginners.  His blog and his regular articles for the Guardian are also well worth worth reading.

Any in translation?
Diderot's The Nun and Mme de Lafayette's The Princess of Cleves.

And how many of this year’s books were from the library?
Again, about 20 from the library and a few borrowed from other people.   I also read about 10 books on an e-reader this year, some of which were borrowed, but have retained my preference for the printed page.  They are great for travelling with, however.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Akenfield by Ronald Blythe

This is the third book in my Suffolk triad, meant to be read during a holiday in that county which didn't quite happen (we went to France instead).  Akenfield is a collection of interviews with Suffolk villagers, conducted by Ronald Blythe during 1967 and described by him in his introduction as a "quest for the voice of Akenfield".  The interviews are divided up thematically: we hear from the survivors, those connected with God, the law and education, the craftsmen, the farmers, and so on.  Sometimes the interviewee's words are prefaced by a short description or introduction to the person from Blythe himself; in a couple of cases he recounts the person's story in his words rather than theirs.

It took me a long time to read Akenfield, mainly because each interview is like a little novel, full of complexity, detail and meaning.  Because the interviews are so wide-ranging, from the old men, those born in the nineteenth century who fought in the First World War, to the striplings, the boys learning to farm at agricultural colleges, by way of the Baptist minister, the midwife, the teacher, the retired colonel now a chicken farmer, this makes for a dense, rich book, absorbing and stimulating, that needs a lot of careful consideration and digestion.  I also found it personally evocative - I recognised some of these voices, these manners and morals, from my own rural childhood in the 1970s, especially the perpetual, not unfriendly, separation between villagers and incomers that permeates these interviews, and the perpetual divisions of class.

Some of the social changes that we now associate with the 1960s are apparent here.  There is more geographical mobility, more people working in industry in Ipswich rather than continuing to work the land.  Working the land itself is becoming a complex, scientific job as the white heat of technology reaches agriculture.  Everyone in the book who remembers life in Akenfield before the Second World War (or even the First World War) agrees that life is better now, especially in terms of the working conditions for farm employees; some descriptions of 1920s and 1930s farming practices make farm workers sound like little more than slaves.  Some of the young men are, daringly, sporting what is described as "long hair".  Some express quite radical political opinions, although a rich stream of conservatism flows through the interviewees.

There is also nostalgia (and probably a retrospective nostalgia that now applies to the book itself) for the old country ways, the traditions of bell-ringing, the farming year, and especially rural crafts.   A whole section is devoted to the men who work in the forge; Gregory, the blacksmith, has ensured the survival of his trade once the farming work no longer needed horseshoes by creating new iron objects of desire, and recreating Tudor door-latches and the like for people who are restoring Suffolk cottages.  This pleasant nostalgia is off-set not only by the accounts of poverty and exploitation but also by the attitudes expressed to sexual crime, which can be casual and almost tolerant.

While reading the book I wondered how much was genuine transcription, and how much Blythe built his texts back up from notes.  In this BBC Radio 3 interview he describes the work as a novel, but if it is one he has inhabited the language and mind of his multitude of characters with incredible accuracy and sympathy.  Whoever is writing or speaking here, the words are often a delight; Anthony the young shepherd's description of his dog put me very much in mind of Sylvia Townsend Warner, who had a William of her own:

William is my dog.  He was bought by the farm but he thinks he is my dog, and I think he is too.  He does a good half of the work.  He can do anything.  He can put the whole flock through the footbath without my even being in the field, and he is fond of conversation.
Blythe has written a number of other books that sound equally enticing, and there is a sequel to Akenfield by Craig Taylor called Return to Akenfield which takes up the story forty years on, as well as a film by Peter Hall made in 1974, which looks to be worth seeking out, and features Ronald Blythe as the vicar.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Joseph and his Brethren by H.W. Freeman

This 1928 novel is another Suffolk book, telling the story of a farming family, the Geaiters, who take on the unpromising Crakenhill Farm and, through astonishingly dedicated hard work, make it profitable.  Benjamin Geaiter, the patriarch of the family, generates gossip in the local village; he has served time for manslaughter and, it is rumoured, beats his wife.  Emily Geaiter expires (due to overwork and not any sort of assault) in the first chapter, and the novel focuses on Benjamin and his sons and their unassailable passion for the land they work.  Repeatedly, the younger Geaiters toy with the idea of leaving Crakenhill, and repeatedly they are drawn back to the farm.  None of them marry; even handsome Harry, the youngest, is persuaded by his brothers' arguments and his own love of the farm to break off with his sweetheart.  But when their old housekeeper dies, she is replaced by eighteen-year-old Nancy, hired almost on a whim by Benjamin, who spots her scrubbing a doorstep and recognises strength and diligence when he sees it.  Nancy makes Crakenhill much more pleasant, but she also disrupts the delicately balanced relationships between father and sons, and brother and brother.

All the brothers fall in love to some degree with Nancy, but their hamfisted competition for her affections falls away when they realise that she is pregnant, and Benjamin is the father.  Benjamin marries Nancy at the eleventh hour, and their son Joseph is at first an unwelcome addition to the family.  But gradually the Geaiter brothers come to dote on Joseph, and he loves nothing more than to go with them about their daily tasks, absorbing their skills and their passion for their land.  Second marriages and half-siblings create tensions around inheritances, as all listeners to The Archers will know, and the last part of the novel shows how these factors affect the brothers, and how they seek to preserve their affectionate unity through difficult times.

The date of this novel and the characterisation of the Geaiter brothers make me think this must have been one of the many texts satirised by Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm.  There is an awful lot to remind us of the male Starkadders here, especially among the dimmer Geaiter brothers.  Here is Ern, tempted to leave Crakenhill for the army, having second thoughts:

Ern was sitting with his head in his hands, looking intently out of the window, and he was hankering after his cows.  He had just caught a glimpse of a farmyard with cattle chewing tranquilly in the byre, just as they did at Crakenhill [...] In a neighbouring field five big black sows were routing in the turf with their litters tumbling happily around them; they looked up with a grunt, snout in the air, to watch the train roar past [...] All the longing which had been struggling with him for the last two hours, suddenl burst out and took possession of him - the longing for his cows and pigs, for Crakenhill with its sagging roof and crow-stepped gable, for his brothers, even his father, because they belonged there.

Nancy's transformation of shabby, uncomfortable Crakenhill into a pleasant farmhouse also prefigures Flora Poste's good offices at Cold Comfort.  While the book is necessarily focused on its male characters, and the constraints and pleasures of rural life for them, Freeman is also acute in the way he depicts his few female characters and the limited scope they have.  Nancy, orphaned and exploited, quite possibly raped by Benjamin, still chooses to marry him because marriage to a successful farmer increases her status hugely.   The emphasis throughout is on the hardness of rural life, the endless backbreaking toil of farming and housekeeping and childrearing, but Freeman also stresses the beauty and nobility of this work and the rewards of such a strong connection to the land/.

As well as Cold Comfort, this book has obvious echoes of Hardy, although for me it lacked the ironic narrative voice that you get in Hardy; the narrative is straightforward and generally reticent, although you occasionally do get a little narrative comment on the actions of the characters, who are mostly seen in the round, their good and bad aspects unflinchingly examined.  This can make them difficult to love or even like, although they remain interesting and I found, once the plot had wound itself up, that the novel was rather compelling.  So did a lot of other people, apparently, because this book was a bestseller in its day and an American Book of the Month choice.  This book was written away from its location, when H.W. Freeman was living in Florence; I think this helps account for the intensity and the lyricism of his descriptions of the Suffolk countryside, conjured from his imagination and his memory. The primacy of the landscape in this novel does mean, however, that the characterisation is occasionally simplistic, although eldest brother Ben, Harry and young Joseph do all emerge as distinct personalities.

There is a current paperback edition of this book, published by Old Pond Press, who also publish a couple of other Freeman novels.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

My Life in Books

The lovely Simon of Stuck in a Book very kindly invited me to participate in his online version of My Life in Books, and my responses appear today, with those of fellow blogger Margaret from BooksPlease, a delightful blog that I've only just discovered.  You also get to find out what we thought of each other's choices - Margaret pegged me as a keen swimmer based on mine! Do have a look; the series runs all week and the choices and comparisons are fascinating.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Bestseller by Claud Cockburn

This book, published in 1972, takes a look back at "the books that everyone read" between 1900 and 1939, and what we can understand about why these books were read and who read them.  Some of the titles here are still well-known and a few are still in print (Precious Bane, The Constant Nymph and The Riddle of the Sands are all included); others are remembered but probably very little read now (The Blue Lagoon); while some are simply obscure (have you heard of The Beloved Vagabond?  neither had I).  Cockburn's book is, among other things, a very useful guide to these books, including details of plot and extensive quotations, which give you a good sense of the writer's style.

Cockburn's argument is that books are popular because they fulfil a need for the expression of ideas that is not available elsewhere to the reader; because writers understand this, and because they have an affinity with the reader that allows them to write such books; and because of the craft of the writer concerned.  While he acknowledges that the 'rattling good yarn' is often an avowed reason for a book's popularity, Cockburn has no truck with the idea that the realist or genre writers of the early twentieth century eschewed style, pointing out how carefully you need to construct books of this sort in order to make them readable.  He also argues strongly for bestsellers being read by a middle-class audience.  If you've read much early twentieth century fiction, you'll probably have come across descriptions of novels as being fit only for housemaids.  There were a lot of housemaids before 1939, but not enough to push a novel like E.M. Hull's The Sheik quite so far up the bestseller lists.  Cockburn suggests that  - whatever they said in public about their reading habits - middle-class readers read books like  The Sheik, and they did so because they enjoyed them.

Some of these books established a genre.  Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands is a prototype spy novel (for an enthusiastic and enthusing review of this book, try Kate Macdonald's podcast at, in fact try all her podcasts as they are an excellent way to spend ten minutes).  The Sheik, a potent blend of exoticism and violent sex, not only inspired middle-class women to tour Morocco looking for a Sheik of their own, but has a current great-grandchild in the shape of Fifty Shades of Grey.  Cockburn's political position (he was a well-known proponent of communism) is overt in this text, and he castigates readers for claiming that they have no affinity with books that promote racism or misogyny which they choose to read for pleasure: "There were other books on the library shelf".  Cockburn was a journalist and the style of this book bears that out; his writing is incisive and amusing.  This sometimes sits oddly with the indigestible prose he quotes from the bestsellers under consideration.

This book is out of print, although there are a few very cheap secondhand copies around and it seems to be fairly easy to find in libraries. 

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Corduroy by Adrian Bell

Corduroy - the title comes from the habitual dress of the Suffolk farmer, as opposed to the finer fabrics worn in London - is a memoir of Adrian Bell's first year in farming.  Bell's father was a journalist, and the young Adrian tries newspaper life briefly, but succumbs to the lure of the rural, and goes to live with Mr Colville, part of a large Suffolk farming family; his own family hope this will get the agricultural itch out of his system.  Mr Colville helps him to learn how to farm: Adrian starts from the bottom up, helping with the routine farm chores, but Mr Colville also shows him how to manage a farm, the disposition of labour, machines and money to get the best results.  By the end of the year he has learned enough to consider starting to farm on his own, but will his stubbornly urban family accept this choice?

The book, written about 8 years after the experiences it describes, is like somebody's memoir of the early days of a love affair.  Everything about the farm and country life is fascinating and exciting to Adrian. The language used to describe the Suffolk countryside is lyrical and poetical but also rich in agricultural detail:

"Things had now reached their climax of growth. The corn stood high in the fields, green yet, but with emerging ears, and the grass was deep in the meadows left for hay, and shimmered in the breeze.  Every corner by wall or barn had its growth of grass and nettles.  Nothing was yet cut down, but blades were being prepared.  Scythes were brought from dusty corners and weighed in the hands."

It is, perhaps, Adrian's poet's attention that helps him to prosper in this environment.  In the early chapters, he is a stranger in a new land; the narrative is almost a travelogue as Adrian learns the local language - verbal and not - and begins to find his way about.  He admires the skill of the people around him; he identifies with the ingrained love of the land that means that any local man - the blacksmith, the postman - will have a field somewhere in which he grows a crop of wheat or raises a few pigs.  I grew up in the country in the 1970s and there were still a few people like this, fitting in odd bits of farming around a day job in the local town.   Most of this world, though, was probably disappearing when the book was published.

At first, his class status causes some awkwardness with the other farm labourers, although not with the Colvilles, who are secure in their social position as a successful farming family.  Adrian is particularly annoyed when his boots, which looked so rugged in a London shop, are dismissed as "gentleman's boots".  But his good humour and willingness to learn see him through.  The book is very funny throughout, and most of the jokes come from Adrian's clumsiness and naivety, or the sudden impact of hubris when he thinks he is doing well.  Here he is, a less than expert rider, out hunting on the mare Cantilever:

"I was congratulating myself, saying 'You've been a first-rate horseman all these years and not known it'.  I began to enjoy the hazards. A hedge ahead [...] Cantilever sprang at it.  Next moment her head seemed miles below me and I was flying through the air. I found myself turning a somersault, and as I did so I remember thinking, 'You are coming the deuce of a cropper'.  I hit the ground with my shoulder, then stood on my head.  I seemed poised thus for ages.  It felt undignified; I kept wishing my legs would come down."

The tone is a slightly peculiar mixture of the modern and the conservative.  Socially, the farming world is conservative; gender roles are rigid, hierarchies are fixed.  But Mr Colville is a believer in modern farming methods, and interested in improving his skills and equipment to increase his yield.  Adrian often emphasises, however, the enduring traditions of the farming calendar, and contrasts this authenticity with the Chelsea drawing-rooms he is still obliged to visit; his affinity is entirely with the rural. Slightly drunk at an agricultural show, he feels that he is fitting in at last:

"I lost all sense of strangeness in my surroundings.  It seemed I had become a real agriculturalist at last, for I felt pleased and familiar with everything about me.  I admired the old County gentlemen with their neat check ties, their yellow gloves turned back at the wrists.  I would grow old like that. "

Not all of farming life has such a golden glow over it, and Adrian is willing to admit that some of it is dull, cold, wet or just plain unpleasant.  His strength of feeling has something of the overpowering notstalgia for the old ways that is often experienced by newcomer, and he is not so naive that he cannot recognise this.  Bell keeps the balance between mockery of his early naivety and celebration of his affection for the countryside exactly right, so that neither is overwhelming. Similarly, the equation of the rural with the traditional, and the urban with the modern, recognises that the world cannot be so easily divided up.

Modern readers will find the occasional antisemitism tiresome, although it is not untypical of works of this period.  However, the lyrical descriptions of the Suffolk countryside and Bell's humorous approach make the book well worth reading.  There are two further memoirs, The Cherry Tree and The Silver Ley, which follow Adrian Bell's farming career.  This book is currently available from Slightly Foxed. with a beautiful woodcut cover - the cover of my OUP copy is less elegant, featuring pigs, swill, and mud in large but probably accurate quantities.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Findings by Kathleen Jamie

There has been a lot of press about Kathleen Jamie's new book Sightlines which inspired me to try her, but I thought I should start with this book first.  Findings is a book of essays, some recounting journeys, some considering the natural world, others the details of the world we have made for ourselves.  Jamie's message could be summarised, simply, as pay attention: pay thoughtful and critical attention to the things you encounter, reflect on them, consider their meaning.  Jamie doesn't articulate this as a set of shoulds and oughts; she simply recounts, in beautiful and resonant language, her own thoughts and reflections on the things she has seen.

Sometimes this is exuberant - such as in the last chapter when, on a whale-watching boat, Jamie, the passengers and crew are treated to an astonishing encounter with a huge school of dolphins - and sometimes it is sombre.  The separate essays twist around, not necessarily going in the direction you might expect. Her themes can be exotic or strange, such as the preserved anatomical specimens in the Surgeon's Hall in Edinburgh, and utterly familiar.  Here is a typically lovely paragraph that considers the cobweb:

"The cobwebs make me think of ears, or those satellite dishes attuned to every different nuance of the distant universe.  One cobweb after another - a whole quarter of cobwebs, like an Eastern bazaar with all the cobblers, all the spice-sellers, all the drapers together in their own alleys.  The biggest web measured about a hand-span and a half, a pianist's hand-span.  I wondered if all the spiders were related, a family group."

Jamie is very good at making the familiar strange so that we can see and consider it from a new perspective, so that we too can wonder about the meaning of the everyday.  She also describes the Scottish landscape in a way that makes it both tempting and accessible, articulating the lure of islands and mountains, relating them to daily life, and then shifting perspective again so they acquire a renewed remoteness. Having finished this book, I found I had so thoroughly absorbed the message of mindfulness, the need to pay proper attention, that I immediately read it again - and, unsurprisingly, it yielded up new meanings that I had missed the first time.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale

The good man of the title is Barnaby Johnson, a middle-aged Church of England priest with a parish in West Cornwall. The novel opens, though, on the last day of Lenny Barnes's life; Lenny has been paralysed in a rugby accident and, at the age of twenty, has decided to take his own life.  Barnaby is the person he asks to be with him while he takes the drug that will bring about his death.  The novel traces the stories of Barnaby, Lenny and those around them that led to this moment, and follows its consequences for all of them.

Patrick Gale's technique of moving the narrative viewpoint between the characters and shifting it about in time is well-deployed here, dropping in bits and pieces of knowledge, some of which will remain obscure until later in the text, some of which are little unexploded bombs, maintaining tension in a non-linear narrative.  Driving through all this is the theme of goodness; what it is, where it comes from, how closely it is allied to religion.  Barnaby's goodness can be a shield, a mask, and a challenge; characters in the novel may believe in it implicitly but the reader is in the privileged position of knowing about his flaws and mistakes, but Gale's sympathy for his characters ensures that Barnaby remains likeable rather than being irritatingly perfect. The book is particularly interesting when considering the position of a priest in a society mostly indifferent to religion, his separateness and his accessibility, and the impact this has on Barnaby and on his family. 

Gale at his best is excellent at narrative tension, at keeping the reader engrossed in his characters and the evolution of the plot, and this works really well in this novel, as secrets and tensions emerge.  There is also a chance to meet some of the characters from Notes from an Exhibition again and Gale, as usual makes good use of the Cornish setting.  This book is far more complex in structure and content than the beach-read cover suggests, absorbing and satisfying as well as challenging.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson

Subtitled Women's Lives during the Second World War, this book - like Singled Out - draws on a vast range of personal accounts of the experiences of British women.  Virginia Nicholson uses interviews, diaries, Mass Observation records as well as published sources to construct a sense of how women lived their lives during the war.  As she points out, relatively few women entered the uniformed services during the war, with most continuing to keep house and look after their children through the privations of wartime, and the book seeks especially to tell the story of that Home Front.

While she succeeds in this - and with diarists like Nella Last at hand, she has plenty of good sources among the women who struggled with rationing and did their bit as volunteers in the WVS or similar - one of the problems with accounts of quiet, stoical endurance is that they may not always be terribly exciting.  But the book also includes plenty of accounts of women who ventured a bit further, and whose bravery and heroism makes for a little more drama such as Mary Cornish, who survived the wrecking of a ship taking evacuated children to Canada, and Aileen "Mike" Morris, who served in Malta and North Africa with the WAAFs; a fluent German speaker, she listened to and interpreted their radio messages.

Throughout the book, Nicholson considers where feminism is in all this activity, whether women were motivated by patriotism, the desire to defeat fascism or a wish to extend women's social role.  Particularly interesting are the chapters on the years immediately after the war, when many women went back, with some relief, to home-making and child-rearing.  The impact of prolonged separation from their husbands and the independence this enforced affected even the most devoted housewife, however; Nicholson tells of returning husbands whose need to reassert their masculine authority marked the end of the marriage.  For other women, the end of the war was a time of frustration; sidelined out of their jobs to make room for returning heroes, they felt unvalued, no longer of use to their country.  But many women, as Nicholson points out, were entirely identified with the idea of home; home was, as she says "who they were", and the chance to return there meant self-fulfilment and expression rather than constraint.

Perhaps this position partly has its roots in the type of war service women undertook; as Nicholson explains, most women's wartime roles were ancillary, supportive of the front-line war service of men, and kept that way deliberately by the wartime administration; anything else was far too challenging to the notion of woman as man's helpmeet and women with an idea of themselves as equal to men were, in any case, few and far between.  To the modern feminist reader this can, as Nicholson acknowledges, be frustrating, but she is always fair and balanced in her approach, seeking to understand their position and its origins rather than to criticise.  The whole book is deeply empathic; Nicholson's fellow feeling for the women she writes about means that their stories are moving and engaging, although even Nicholson couldn't make me empathise with Barbara Cartland.  My one minor criticism is that, although there is quite a lot of material on women's sexual lives during the war, lesbianism only seems to be mentioned in terms of predation.  There are several published memoirs of lesbian life in wartime that could have amplified this - the book It's Not Unusual has a chapter on the Second World War, if you are interested in finding out more.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Now All Roads Lead to France by Matthew Hollis

A short holiday on the border between the Somme and the Pas-de-Calais seemed a good place to read this; Edward Thomas spent the last months of his life near Arras and was killed and is buried there.  I first came across Thomas's poetry during my A level English exam; his poem "Lights Out" appeared in the exam paper for the practical criticism element.  The alternative practical criticism test was an undigestible chunk of Walter Pater, so I wrote about the poem.  Its formal elegance and its graceful ambiguity made me want to find out who wrote it, and to read more of his work.

Matthew Hollis's book describes Thomas's life during its last four years, from 1913 to 1917, but inevitably brings in a great deal of his earlier years, showing how he got to where he was.  It is structured into four sections, one for each year, and each section has four chapters, one for each season of that year.  This gives a great sense of time passing, the precious few years that Thomas has left slipping away.  Thomas the man can be difficult to like.  Depressive, often despairing, and feeling trapped by family life, disappointed with the literary 'hack-work' by which he earns a living, he is rather like a Gissing character made flesh; there are strong echoes of New Grub Street throughout.  His long-suffering and devoted wife Helen yearns to make him happy, but Thomas believes his best chance of happiness - and that of his family - lies in their separation.  Hollis carefully describes the friendships and incidents that  - if they do not transform Thomas into a happy, contented man - open up the possibilities of his life and lead to the remarkable poems he wrote between November 1914 and his death.

A key friendship is that with Robert Frost, making a long stay in England with his family.  The two men met through the Poetry Bookshop, Thomas having been a critic of poetry before he began to write it, and a warm friendship ensued, with the Thomases and the Frosts eventually living near each other (and a number of other poets) in Dymock.  Hollis writes very well about this friendship, which can be a difficult thing to describe; the text gives a real sense of the bedrock of affection that underlies the ups and downs of any such relationship.  He also shows the exchange of influence between the two writers, and explains how Thomas is the likely inspiration for "The Road Not Taken". 

Hollis is a poet himself and this book is not only beautifully written but fascinating, as it shows, from a poet's perspective, how Thomas wrote his poetry.  Using Thomas's notes and drafts, he demonstrates how a brief experience or idea is worked and reworked from the basic account into poetic form, how extraneous words are pared away to increase the intensity of meaning, and how hard Thomas worked to perfect his writing.  There is a vast amount to enjoy in this book from whatever angle you approach it; whether you like biography, poetry, books about World War I, or all three, there will be something to interest you. 

Friday, 20 July 2012

Brothers and Sisters by Ivy Compton-Burnett

In common with most Ivy Compton-Burnett novels, this 1929 book revolves around the secrets, evasions and general awfulness of Edwardian family life.  In the first chapter, old Andrew Stace, head of the family, is discussing the disposal of his property with his daughter, Sophia, and his adopted son, Christian.  The two young people tell their father that they wish to marry; he forbids this, but after his death they marry anyway.  The scene jumps forward thirty years, and Sophia and Andrew are living with their adult children, Dinah, another Andrew, and Robin, in the family home.  Sophia dominates the household, seeking to control everything that happens within the family, demanding a perpetual tribute of attention and love from her children,  and enjoying the status of domestic martyr.  This is a typical Sophia outburst: "I don't know what things are coming to, when I can't claim a little attention in my own house.  How am I to get on with my work of organising everything, if I am to be left entirely without help?"

The atmosphere of the novel is claustrophobic from the outset; the narrow social group of the Staces does nothing to enlarge their world, since it is made up of other pairs of brothers and sisters.  Dinah and Andrew become engaged to one of these pairs, Gilbert and Caroline Lang, who have recently moved to the village.  However, these engagements are quickly broken off when it emerges that elderly Mrs Lang is the mother of the adopted Christian Stace, and Dinah and Andrew realise they are engaged to their own uncle and aunt.  Mrs Lang dies suddenly, Christian Stace even more suddenly, and the possibilities of escape for the Stace children open and close as more and more secrets are revealed.

There is a chilly frivolity about this novel, like a very bitter and cynical version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, as the pairs of brothers and sisters form and re-form into different pairings.  ICB's usual style persists; plot and character are developed mainly through dialogue, and we never step outside the Staces' village.  However, I enjoyed this a lot more than most of the other ICBs I have read; the Stace and the Lang children are sympathetic characters, and there is a lot of ironic humour in the characterisation of Sophia herself, monstrous though she is.  There are lots of other interesting themes within the novel, too, especially class and the position of servants - Miss Patmore, once the children's nurse and still living with the Staces, is a key character and a very interesting one in terms of how the family maintains its equilibrium.

Disappointingly, this one is out of print, although there are secondhand copies around.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane evolved a mission: to escape, for brief periods, his decidedly unwild Cambridge home, and to explore the wild places of Britain and Ireland.  Initially he defines 'wild' as remote, unlit, and "where the evidence of human presence was minimal or absent".   The effect of his travels, however, will be a new conception of 'wild' and a new appreciation of the qualities of wild places.  In particular, he comes to see the "evidence of human presence" pretty much everywhere, and indeed this can be what makes some of the wilder places tolerable, even if the evidence is historical or archeological.  And he comes to recognise the overlooked wildness of unexpected places: "The weed thrusting through a crack in a pavement, the tree root impudently cracking a carapace of tarmac: these were wild signs, as much as the storm wave and the snowflake".  I'm always fascinated by the wildness in the edgelands, forgotten or abandoned places where nature's vigour is overtaking the signs of human endeavour, so Macfarlane's inner journey was designed to appeal.

Macfarlane is an incredibly energetic and enthusiastic companion, with a taste for sleeping out in a bivouac bag, swimming in cold water, and exploring some deeply inhospitable places.  I quite often read books like this with a mounting envy of the journeys made and the things seen, but I read this book feeling quite sure that I don't want to spend a night on Ben Hope, or attempt to scale the well-named Inaccessible Pinnacle, and Macfarlane's account of swimming up a sea cave made my skin crawl:

I swam to the biggest of the caves.  Holding on to an edge of rock, and letting the swell lift me gently up and down, I looked inside.  Though I could not see the back of the cave, it seemed to run thirty or forty feet into the cliffs [...] As I crossed the shadow cast by the cave's roof, the water grew cold.  There was a big hollow sucking and slapping sound.  I shouted, and heard my call come back at me from all sides [...] Further back into the cave, the light was diffused and the air appeared powdery.  The temperature had dropped, and I sensed the whole gathered coldness of the unsunned rock around and above me, pushing out into the air and water.  I glanced back over my shoulder.  The big semicircular mouth of the cave had by now shrunk to a cuticle of light.  I could only just see out to the horizon of the see, and I felt a sudden involuntary lurch of fear.

You and me both, Robert.  The powerful sense of claustrophobia this evokes is a good example of the way Macfarlane conveys a textured, detailed impression of the places he visits; sound, smell, temperature, surface and colour all combine in his writing to take the reader with him to the wild places.  His language is also fresh and attractive; I love that "unsunned" and the "cuticle of light".  He is also frank about his other lurches of fear; as it turns out, he doesn't want to climb the Inaccessible Pinnacle either.  Alongside his evocations of place are lots of detours into the history of the places he visits and of the people who frequented them.  Some of these are famous - Coleridge, Ivor Gurney - others much less so, like W.H. Murray who wrote about the Scottish mountains, on blank loo paper, while a prisoner of war during World War II.  His historical and biographical writing is detailed and confident, and balanced elegantly against his evocation of place.

A key figure in this book is Roger Deakin, author of Wildwood and Waterlog, and a cherished friend of Macfarlane's.  They travel together to explore the Burren in Ireland and the holloways of Dorset.  But the book pivots around Deakin's sudden illness and untimely death; he is in many ways the inspiration for Macfarlane's journeys, and the second half of the book is in some ways an account of recovering from this loss and a celebration of Deakin himself.  I particlarly enjoyed the passing reference to the three different varieties of moss Roger Deakin proudly points out, growing in the footwells of his ancient car.  Robert Macfarlane has a book just out called The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot which sounds very enticing and has just slipped onto my Amazon wish-list.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

Harriet is the tragic story of a young woman's exploitation.  Based on a real case, the 'Penge Mystery' that gripped 1870s London, the novel explains how Harriet, a woman with what we would now call a learning disability and also a three thousand pound legacy, falls into the hands of Lewis Oman and his brother Patrick.  Patrick is an unsuccessful artist with a wife, the beautiful Elizabeth, and two small children; Lewis works as an auctioneer's clerk and is, at the start of the novel, romantically involved with Elizabeth's sister Alice Hoppner.  Harriet is living with her mother, Mrs Ogilvy, who genuinely loves her daughter and has cared for her as best she can; Harriet likes the theatre, nice clothes and shoes, is fastidious, and can hold simple conversations.  However, she is not easy company and her mother occasionally sends her away for a few weeks as a paying guest.  The Hoppners are cousins of some sort, and it is while staying with them that Lewis meets Harriet.  Discovering the extent of her fortune (Harriet's wealth would have the purchasing power of over a million pounds today) he determines to marry her.  Mrs Ogilvy's attempts to prevent the marriage by legal means fail, and Lewis and Harriet marry.  For a while, they live together in London; Mrs Ogilvy attempts a reconciliation with her daughter but is rebuffed.  When Harriet becomes pregnant, Lewis uses this as a pretext to bring Alice to live with them, but once the child is born he decides to take things even further.

Elizabeth Jenkins makes a compelling and horrifying novel out of this story.  As Rachel Cooke's  Afterword to the Persephone edition explains, she stuck very closely to the source material, barely changing the characters' names and keeping the suburban south London location for much of the action.  What the novel does so well is show how people slip by degrees into crime, how acquiescence turns to commission, and how much guilt can be ascribed to those who see what is happening, but choose not to understand it.  Much of this narrative focuses on Elizabeth, who agrees to house Harriet and her child and, slowly, is drawn into perpetuating her neglect.  Midway through the novel, she realises that Alice has taken one of Harriet's beautiful dresses and unpicked it to remake for herself, but she "looked away without saying anything".  This connivance is the foundation for Elizabeth's eventual conception of Harriet as inhuman: "It wasn't, after all, as if Harriet felt anything" and her collusion is fuelled by her overpowering love for her husband, Patrick.  The network of relationships between Lewis, Patrick, Elizabeth and Alice is deeply intense, the brothers in particular shown as enmeshed in a folie à deux that clearly cannot end well.  What is most troubling, however, is the four's calm acceptance of the luxuries provided by Harriet's money while she is imprisoned and neglected upstairs.  In this scene, Patrick has just announced that he has boarded up Harriet's window:

"They all stretched out their feet to the comforting glow; the afternoons were drawing in fast, and the firelight turned them in their afternoon drowsiness to Egyptian figures, ruddy and black."

Patrick and Elizabeth can hardly afford coal under normal circumstances; the news that Harriet can no longer see out of the window, or have her bare room ventilated, does not disrupt their comfortable afternoon drowsiness in any way.  But Jenkins, while she is convinced of the guilt of the Omans and Alice, also carefully notes those who could have done something, but did not; passing tradesmen who saw Harriet, the servant Clara, Mrs Hoppner, the police and other authorities to name a few.  However, she also shows their reasons for not acting on their suspicions, particularly in the case of naive and powerless Clara.  This reminded me a lot of the debate around various recent and ghastly child abuse scandals, and the debate around individual and collective guilt for crimes of this sort.   I also really enjoyed Jenkins's writing style, which is lucid, expressive and powerful.  Here, suburban Alice, rejected by Louis for Harriet,  has her first encounter with the delights of a Kentish spring:

"But when in one of her solitary walks she came across a thicket of whitehorn, standing in ethereal brillance against the dark wood-side, it gave her a pang of such sharpness that she almost felt her unhappiness had never really come upon her until this moment.  She retraced her steps in horror, and from that time she half unconsciously shunned anything beautiful in scent or sight or sound that the countryside offered [...] when the time of the full moon grew near, she would wake within the narrow space of four bare walls, the patches of radiance reflected on the wall as if through prison bars, and the great golden face gazing in upon her, forbidding her to sleep; forbidding her, in that strange silence and light, to cry."

Jenkins cleverly evokes the early signs of Spring, which most readers would find pleasurable, to explore Alice's psychology; her rejection and fear of natural beauty helps establish her as someone who might well reject prevalent moral standards.

This book is without a doubt disturbing, without being in any way gratuitous, but, as I said above, entirely compelling.  I've not read any of Jenkins's other work but will be seeking it out.  The Persephone edition is, as always, beautifully produced, and the Afterword is enlightening on the real case that inspired the novel.  Desperate Reader and Harriet Devine have both written interesting reviews of this book, and there is an Observer piece by Rachel Cooke about the real case behind the text.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Conference at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

I've been put off opening this, even though I read it before years ago, by my experience with Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm, but really I needn't have worried.  This is a short novel-length return to Cold Comfort Farm, converted, in post-WW2 austerity, into a conference centre managed by a trust.  All the Starkadders except Reuben have disappeared, mostly to South Africa, and Reuben himself has been moved out of the farmhouse and into a rude hut on Ticklepenny's Field, the last bit of land remaining to him.  Flora, summoned by Mr Mybug to help run a conference at Cold Comfort, including modernists, advanced thinkers and high-ranking examples of the new managerial aristocracy, immediately sets about putting things right.

Like the original novel, the narrative is slightly speculative, with some sort of managerialist government in power and everyone conscripted into useful work. Flora is now the mother of five, so has a government-assigned spiv to act as au pair; Reuben has been soundly ripped off by a combination of the Ministry of Agriculture and a body analagous to the National Trust. Gibbons has lots of fun with the modernist artists and their output, the managers and their machinations, a set of dipsomaniac scientists, and the enduringly ridiculous Mr Mybug, still married to Rennett and with three sons, who have "fixations" on their parents which take the form of "liking to be with us, wanting to be kissed goodnight, and that sort of thing.  We've tried everything - it only gets worse".  Adam Lambsbreath reappears, apparently immortal and still longing for his little mop, and there is a moving reunion between Urk and the water-voles.

Flora has lost none of her capability or her charm but is perhaps slightly more assertive.  One of my favourite moments in Cold Comfort Farm is when Mr Mybug eats the little cake that Flora had wanted for herself, and it chokes him.  This time, he is firmly prevented from stealing her hot milk.  I cannot help thinking that Stella Gibbons' own experience informs Flora's thoughts on receiving confidences: "years and years of listening to people had taught her that if she just kept quiet and sipped or sewed and never looked shocked, there was literally no limit - no limit at all - to what people would tell her".  I suspect many of us can endorse that.

Conference at Cold Comfort Farm is short, sharp and funny, and highly recommended to cheer up a damp cold Bank Holiday or other dreary circumstances.  Also recommended is I Prefer Reading's review.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeannette Winterson

The title of this book is a question posed to the young Jeannette by her adoptive mother, and this memoir tracks the boundaries of happiness and normality, slipping over the border into misery and unreality.  The book is in two parts: the first part retraces, in memoir form, the story already told in Oranges are Not the Only Fruit; the second - after an intermission in which Winterson explains she will be leaving out 25 years of her life - tells the story of her search for her birth mother.  Anyone who has read Oranges will know that Jeannette Winterson's early life was strange, funny, and deeply troubling, and all of those adjectives apply to this book too.  Often, though, she insists on the normality of her life alongside its extraordinariness, drawing out the typical aspects of a Northern working-class upbringing within her own life.  For me, this just made the extraordinary aspects even more so.  Winterson is unflinching in explaining how her upbringing has affected her, especially in terms of the way she subsequently treated others; violence, lack of trust and lack of an ability to believe in the continuity of love have all marked her, and the people who were close to her.  She has also achieved what seemed to me a very generous understanding of both her mothers, particularly the monstrous Mrs Winterson, who she comes to see as "too big for her world, but she crouched gloomy and awkward under its low shelf, now and again exploding to her full three hundred feet and towering over us.  Then, because it was useless, redundant, only destructive, or so it seemed, she shrank back again, defeated".

Inevitably, the question of truth or fiction arises in this text.  Winterson tells us she is often asked what is "true" in Oranges and what was invented.  Part of this memoir shows us how books supported and constructed her idea of self, and it is to other, similar texts, that she turns to consider the "authentic" and the "fictional" selves:

Woolf and Stein were radical to use real people in their fictions and to muddle their facts - Orlando with its actual photos of Vita Sackville-West, and Alice Toklas, the supposed writer, who is Stein's lover but not the writer ...
For me, fascinated with identity, and how you define yourself, those books were crucial.  Reading yourself as a fiction as well as a fact is the only way to keep the narrative open - the only way to stop the story running away under its own momentum, often towards an ending no one wants.

It seems to me that reading yourself as a fiction is also a way to make the intolerable tolerable, through constructing alternative realities and futures.  I found all of this book, the hope and despair, terribly moving even while it was funny; the humour is, perhaps, another construction that keeps the narrative open.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Vicar's Daughter by E.H. Young

The Vicar's Daughter is an Edwardian (or possibly late Victorian) family drama set in the small community of a fishing village, Old Framling,  lately annexed by New Framling, a modern seaside resort.   Edward Stack is the vicar of the title, but his wife Margaret, a loving, energetic and manipulative woman, is the protagonist.  At the start of the novel they are away on holiday with their daughter Hilary, and Edward's cousin Maurice Roper is acting as a substitute vicar. While the family are away, he has done a little meddling of his own.  Caroline, a young woman from their childhood home. has come to see Edward; Maurice puts two and two together and decides she must be Edward's daughter from an earlier relationship.  Opposite the Stacks live John and James Blunt, local businessmen, and their housekeeper is ill; what could be more convenient than for Caroline to take over?  When the family return, Maurice lets slip to Margaret, whom he once loved, his suppositions about Caroline's origins.  The novel revolves around Margaret's efforts to manage this complicated situation and resolve it without damaging her much-loved daughter.

Margaret is, in many ways, rather like Young's Miss Mole, particularly in the clever way she works other people to her own ends; like Miss Mole, she can be secretive and devious, but also like Miss Mole, she is an attractive character, saved from outright cynicism by her love for others.  We see Edward mainly through Margaret and Maurice's eyes, and he remained a little two-dimensional to me.  Maurice is that difficult thing, a really well-achieved unsympathetic character, with depth and breadth.    Young makes interesting use of the topography of the town and the Vicarage, placing and moving her characters carefully through spaces to achieve intimacy or the reverse of it.  However, for me this lacked the punch of Miss Mole; as in William, the narrative pace is slow, and the drama protracted.

Even so, there is quite a lot of interest here.  I've been reading a lot of interwar novels about mothers and daughters lately for study purposes, and the genuinely warm and loving relationship between Margaret and Hilary is highly unusual in this context.  Margaret herself is a fascinating portrayal of a woman of immense capability who had no option in life other than marriage, but has devoted her energies to making that option a success: "Marriage and motherhood were the only arts she had been able to practise, and what creative impulse she possessed she had spent on Hilary and Edward".  Margaret embraces this position, but the narrative makes clear how much it costs her to do so. The contrast between authentic old fishing village and its brash new tourist resort neighbour is such a staple of middlebrow fiction that surely somebody is writing a book about it, but its effect is subtle in this text.

Like Young's other novels, this one is out of print, but secondhand copies of the Virago edition are cheap and abundant. 

Friday, 18 May 2012

The Oakleyites by E.F. Benson

If you open The Oakleyites hoping to step into one of E.F. Benson's witty satires of upper-middle-class social life between the wars, you will not be disappointed.  But you will also get something unexpectedly serious as well.

Oakley-on-Sea is quite obviously Rye, or Tilling as it becomes in the Lucia books, and the Oakleyites themselves are a leisured, mainly female group centred around Dorothy Jackson.  Dorothy is cheerful, active and vigorous, and deeply involved in local life; she leads a Dante reading group, sits on the Art Society committee, and enjoys a good game of golf.  In her early thirties, she remains unmarried, having spent her twenties nursing her mother who died of tuberculosis.  The Oakleyites are happily involved in their clubs, their sport, and the engrossing business of letting their houses for the summer, but are disrupted by some new residents.  The first new arrivals are Wilfred Easton, a popular novelist, who takes a house in Oakley for the winter, bringing his mother to live with him.   Kindhearted Dorothy opens her house to her younger sister Daisy, fleeing an improvident marriage to an adulterous and violent, but titled, husband. 

So far, so proto-Lucia; but Dorothy has none of Lucia's guile, Daisy's motivations are simple and transparent, and while Wilfred may live with his mother he is miles away from Georgie.  The novel very quickly sets up a triangular relationship between these three people.  Dorothy, who had considered her chances of marriage entirely behind her, falls in love with Wilfred, and he begins to show signs of affection for her.  But Wilfred's heart was broken in his youth by a woman uncannily like Daisy; and Daisy herself seeks attention and affection from Wilfred in the aftermath of her failed marriage.  E.F. Benson manages to extract both humour and tragedy from this situation.  The narrative presents Daisy as fairly frightful, for example, self-interested and frivolous, but it does not suggest that she has not truly suffered in her marriage.  Dorothy often recognises the ridiculousness of her own situation even while it is making her miserable.  There are blackly humorous sub-plots that involve the three daughters of Dorothy's neighbour, Mr Audley, squabbling over his will - and the account of the annual Art Society exhibition is as funny here as it is in the Lucia stories.

Dorothy, Wilfred and Wilfred's mother Mrs Easton are all attractive characters, and Wilfred is particularly interesting as a portrait of the writer of popular novels in early twentieth century society - his books feature the wicked doings of Marchionesses who are no better than they ought to be  - who acknowledges that "my work has nothing to do with Art.  It is trade".  He and Dorothy discuss about the dilettante dabblings of the Oakleyites in art and literature, often to hideous effect, and compare this to his own production of decidedly unliterary fiction.  In addition to all this, there are some occasionally unexpectedly lovely bits of writing, especially about the beauties of Oakley itself:

"Outside, serene saffron-coloured lights hung in the West, amazingly luminous, so that though the sun had set, the illuminated sky still dimly outlined the shadows of chimneys and gables onto the westward-facing walls of houses opposite.  In the narrowing street up which Miss Dorothy walked briskly to her home, a clear twilight as of translucent water flowed deeper and deeper, but when, passing though the darkling house, she came out for a stroll in her garden, which stood on the very top of the hill-plateau, it was like emerging into some enchanted place.  A yellow unreal light flooded it, making the grass look orange-toned and the familiar and splendid hues of her October flowerbeds seemed as if they had been painted anew."

This is not what I usually expect from Benson, although his love of Rye and in particular this house, inhabited by EFB in real life and Dorothy, Miss Mapp and Lucia on the page, invariably characterises his books.  Expected or not, I found it very enjoyable to read.  It seems to be out of print, although there are facsimile versions around and it is available online.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

This was my first Dorothy L. Sayers, and for the first third of the book I thought it might well be my last.    Lord Peter Wimsey's daffy monologues irritated rather than charmed, the archness of the narrative annoyed me, the little self-referential footnotes got on my nerves.  But as I reached the middle section of the book it started to hook me in.  The novel - and the characters - seemed to genuinely care about the unfortunate murder victims; the narrative suddenly fleshed out Lord Peter, his valet Bunter, and the senior policeman Parker, giving them three-dimensional characters instead of vaguely throwing literary stereotypes onto the page; the atmosphere of 1920s London became breathable.  I also came to enjoy Sayers's style: the scene where a woman must try to identify her husband after he has been fairly thoroughly dissected in an anatomy lab, told almost entirely through dialogue, was particularly powerful.

The plotting is not terribly sophisticated, and it is fairly obvious from the early stages who the murderer is; the tension is built in the race to prove his guilt before he realises that discovery is imminent.  Sayers is very good at showing how many people are touched by the effects of a crime, how its impact radiates out through many layers of society.  I finished this book looking forward to reading the next one in the series.

This was also the first book I'd read on an e-reader.  A Kobo has come into my possession, and as yet I'm not entirely sure about it, although it is hugely convenient for travelling.  I missed the sensation of holding the book in my hands, and the Kobo didn't turn the pages quickly enough for my liking.  If you have (or acquire) an e-reader I highly recommend Girlebooks, who have a lovely range of women's writing, much of it free, in various e-book formats.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay

I'm not that familiar with Rose Macaulay's work, having only read The Towers of Trebizond which I enjoyed enough to re-read a couple of times.  Dangerous Ages, first published in 1921, is very different to that book both in theme and in style.  The dangerous ages concerned are all the possible ages of woman, as experienced in one English family during the summer of 1920.  Neville Bendish celebrates her forty-third birthday in the opening chapter; Neville is married to Rodney, a Labour MP, and has two fairly grown-up children, Gerda and Kay.  Neville has two sisters: Pamela, a social worker who lives in London with a woman friend; and Nan, the youngest, who works as a writer.  Their mother, Mrs Hilary, is sixty-three and very bored and fretful; she lives in a seaside town with her mother, in her eighties and always known as Grandmamma in the text.  Gerda, Nan, Neville and Mrs Hilary will all go through forms of crisis during the novel, while Pamela and Grandmamma seem to have the secret of enjoying life without despairing over it.

Neville's crisis is over her need for work.  She was a promising medical student when she married, and determines to return to her studies, desperate to avoid becoming like Mrs Hilary.  Her family are generally discouraging and assume she won't be able to do it; there are lots of portentous comments about the inability of a woman in her forties to do serious "brain-work".  I'm even older than Neville, and frankly I found this discouraging.  Family circumstances, as well as her decrepit brain, scupper Neville's plans, but the novel ends with a glimmer of hope for her.  Most of the women in the novel, even old-fashioned Grandmamma, are keen on the idea of work (paid or otherwise) as a means to promote energy and interest in life; Mrs Hilary's tragedy is that she feels the need of this, but has not the intellect or the drive to achieve it, and sinks into ennui while criticising her daughters for dissipating themselves in social work or literary endeavour.   She hopes for rescue through psychoanalysis, an expensive form of attention-seeking at a guinea a session.  Nan, a successful writer,  and the ingenue Gerda have a shared crisis over the rather unlikely love object Barry Briscoe, energetic administrator of the Workers' Educational Association; this crisis provokes another, as Nan flees to Rome and the attentions of a married, consumptive artist, and her mother seeks to repair the damage.

Rose Macaulay's narrative tone through the novel is archly humorous, mocking her characters when they deserve it, and shining a light on their petty egotisms and vanities.  Sometimes this goes a bit far; her handling of Gerda, who writes awful poetry (we get to read a little of it) and is firmly committed to a set of fashionable principles, was not unlike an upper-middle-class version of Cold Comfort Farm's Elfine.  I wasn't sure if Gerda was really supposed to be that ridiculous.  Compared to The Towers of Trebizond, the novel is considerably more detached and ironic, although that may be because of the third-person narration, and the mostly English setting gives fewer opportunities for quirky comedy.  The satire of Mrs Hilary's psychoanalysis is, however, extremely funny, as is Nan's hazardous challenge to Gerda's love for Barry.  There is a lot more detail in the text than I've been able to do justice to here, as Macaulay lets her satirical eye rest on the tastes and choices of four generations of women.

Great War Fiction reviews this novel favourably, as does Frisbee: A Book Journal.  Unfortunately, the book is out of print, but it is available online at Project Gutenberg.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Do Shrimps Make Good Mothers?

Delafield fans will remember the Provincial Lady asking herself this odd question, and I came across another reference to it yesterday in Winifred Holtby's Women and a Changing Civilisation and was finally inspired to look it up.  "Do Shrimps Make Good Mothers?" turns out to be the title of a comic song that was popular in the 1920s.  Here are the Two Gilberts (neither, apparently, actually called Gilbert) singing it, from 1924:

As you'll hear, the answer to the question is an emphatic "Yes, they do".

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit

An expansive, exhilarating history of walking, Rebecca Solnit's book encompasses walking as transport, as pastime, as pilgrimage and as protest.  She moves between her own experience of walking, theories of the evolution of walking and philosophies of walking, stopping off to look at the key thinkers and writers who have shaped our understanding of this everyday activity.  Inevitably, a history of walking also becomes a history of the places we walk, and the people who did (and didn't) walk there.

The breadth and depth of her research is remarkable and she pays close, critical attention to the theories she reviews, drawing out some of the ironies of trying to think about walking as well as presenting her own theories of the symbolism of walking.  She describes artists who have used walking to form their works, as well as writers who have relied upon walking to drive their literary endeavours, with a whole chapter devoted to The Legs of William Wordsworth.  Walking in streets, parks, gardens and the wider countryside are all considered.  Walking can seem elemental and free, but has of course been as much constrained as any type of activity; Solnit tells the story of the struggle for access to the countryside and the struggle to preserve urban environments that can be walked.  She also links the act of walking very strongly to the notion of narrative, and to the narrative of human history in particular: "Part of what makes roads, trails and paths so unique as built structures is that they cannot be perceived as a whole all at once by a sedentary onlooker.  They unfold in time as one travels along them, just as a story does as one listens and reads, and a hairpin turn is like a plot twist [...] Roads are  a record of those who have gone before, and to follow them is to follow people who are no longer there."

This notion connects walking intimately to the idea of creativity, and the book reiterates its insistence on the psychological value of walking as a means of producing contentment, understanding, creative energy and new ideas.  "Musing" she writes, "takes place in a kind of meadowlands of the imagination, a part of the imagination that has not yet been ploughed, developed or put to any immediately practical use.  Environmentalists are always arguing that those butterflies, those grasslands, those watershed woodlands, have an utterly necessary function in the grand scheme of things, even if they don't produce a market crop.  The same is true of the meadowlands of the imagination; time spent there is not work time, yet without that time the mind becomes sterile, dull, domesticated.  The fight for free space - for wilderness and for public space - must be accompanied by a fight for free time to spend wandering in that space." Solnit does not over-stress her argument, but her passing references to unwalkable places - towns that have no pavements or no road crossings, or places that have lost their walkers and are perceived as dangerous as a result - show us the consequences of marginalising such a fundamental activity.

Solnit's prose is elegant and her arguments compelling.  I enjoyed this book hugely, and found I was quite envious of her for having written it, for being able to combine a pleasurable activity with a fascinating research process.  Any admirers of Roger Deakin or Robert MacFarlane's books on similar themes will get a lot out of this book.  Solnit has written several other books which I look forward to exploring.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

The New House by Lettice Cooper

It is 1936, and Rhoda Powell and her widowed mother Natalie are moving from their large family home, Stone House, to a smaller house in the same northern English town.  Rhoda's younger sister Delia comes to help on moving day; she is about to be married and will therefore be leaving her job in a London laboratory. She suggests that Rhoda should apply for it and leave home.  Rhoda initially dismisses the idea of leaving her mother, but gradually she realises how much she wants a more independent life.  Will she take this opportunity, or will her sense of loyalty and duty prevail?

The novel is set over a single day and follows the Powells as they pack, dispense cups of tea to the removal men, and unpack in their new house.  As well as Rhoda and her mother and sister, we also meet her brother Maurice, struggling to run the family engineering business; his wife Evelyn, hungry for social success and more money; and Aunt Ellen, Natalie's sister who never married and cared for their mother all her life.  Natalie is outraged by the circumstances of the move; petted and spoiled all her life, she cannot understand why Rhoda and Maurice are allowing this to happen.  Rhoda's sudden expression of her wish to leave home knocks her even further off balance: she takes Rhoda entirely for granted as her helpmeet and companion, fretting when Rhoda fails to put her needs first, jealous of Rhoda's friends and other interests.  There is a loving mother hidden inside Natalie, but she is mainly suppressed by the demanding child that is the personality she shows the world.  As well as the drama unfolding between Rhoda and her mother, two sub-plots run through the novel: the difficulties emerging in Maurice's marriage, and the stoical existence of Aunt Ellen, who suppresses thoughts of her unmet needs and counts her blessings.

This family drama is set firmly in its social context.  Maurice is troubled by his increasing sympathy with the principles of socialism, a sympathy entirely unshared by his wife.  A colleague has made the radical decision to pay himself what he pays his employees, but Maurice knows that Evelyn would never accede to such a redistribution of wealth.  Stone House will be sold to a property developer and its large garden accommodate better housing for the working class.  Natalie is appalled to realise that she will be able to see her neighbours' laundry from her new house; the new house, by the way, is an enlarged lodge that once belonged to the local manor house, and sounds delightful.  Both Natalie and Evelyn are disturbed by the emergence of the poor from their slums where they were decently hidden from sight, and by the new power of tradesmen, and no amount of chaffing by the rest of the family will shift them from this position.  Lettice Cooper also makes a definitive link between the oppression of the poor under capitalism, and the oppression of daughters like Rhoda within the family; Rhoda is well aware of her position, poised between the accepting dutifulness of Aunt Ellen and the greater independence of Delia.

If this all sounds rather worthy, it isn't; it's made entirely pleasurable by Lettice Cooper's lovely writing.  Maureen Duffy's introduction to the Virago edition makes the link with Jane Austen, which is a good comparison, but as well as light irony, fairness and lucidity runs through her prose.  There are also passages that are just straightforwardly beautiful, like this one, in which Rhoda contemplates the nature of change:

It was the newness of the seaside when you went out after tea the first evening; the newness of your bedroom in a friend's house, when you were shown into it, your bag there, just brought up, and the jug of hot water covered with a towel; the newness of your first foreign journey, walking from the boat to the train through strange voices, thinking, I'm in France!  It was precious because it went too soon.  Other things succeeded, but never that particular enchantment.  This fragile bloom was on the whole house, the rooms they had not slept nor eaten in, the garden where they had picked nothing, and the tangle of neglected flowers not of their growing.

Cooper is also good at dropping in little epigrams, little comments about life, which are so clear and obvious you wonder why they have never occurred to you before.  When Rhoda, for example,  remembers a moment of childhood epiphany, she suddenly realises that "it was these moments that made you disinherited; you were homesick in life because there were so few of them".  The Manchester Guardian called this novel Chekhov in Yorkshire on its first publication, which gives you an indication of its beauty and insight.

Lettice Cooper's writing career lasted over sixty years, and she lived to see her work be reissued by Virago and reach a new audience.  The New House is still available from Persephone, and there are secondhand copies around of her other nineteen novels, which range in theme from 1930s Yorkshire to stories set in Florence and a novel about the 1972 miners' strike in Britain.

Monday, 13 February 2012

The Island by Naomi Royde-Smith

It was possibly a mistake to pick this up after Henry Green since this 1930 novel is decidedly heavy on the exposition, avoiding subtle indicators of character or tone in favour of huge symbols and signs that direct the reader firmly towards full understanding of Naomi Royde-Smith's vision.   The novel is subtitled A Love Story, and its protagonist is the orphaned Myfanwy Hughes, known as Goosey.  Living with her aunt and uncle on a farm in North Wales, she falls in love with pretty, sophisticated and rather amoral Flossie Priestman, known to Goosey as Almond.  Flossie/Almond likes Goosey's attention more than she likes Goosey herself, and after she marries, Goosey is rather glad to see the back of her.  Goosey moves to the seaside town of Rockhead with another aunt, a milliner, who has taken her on as apprentice; marriage to the local draper becomes a possibility.  But Almond, a disruptive force, runs in and out of Goosey's life, leaving her husband and returning to him, but always keeping Goosey's devotion at a rolling boil. Goosey eventually, comes to see Almond as the person who has led her into a life of irredeemable sin, leading to a permanent breach between them and the decline of Goosey's rather tenuous hold on sanity.

This book was written at the end of 1929 and published in 1930, and it reads rather like a response to, and repudiation of,  Radclyffe Hall's Well of Loneliness.  In its way, it is as frank as Hall's book;  if you are thinking that the Well is not particularly explicit you are probably right, but reading dozens of interwar books about lesbianism has warped my perspective. However, while The Island accepts notions of lesbian identity, and - interestingly - explores the way these are constructed by mainstream society, the conclusion of the book is the antithesis of the Well.  Stephen Gordon prays to her God for a right to live in her own way; Goosey sets herself against her God among the forces of the damned.  The only thing worse than being a lesbian in most interwar novels on this theme is being bisexual: Almond sits alongside Angela Crossby from the Well as a classic fictional bisexual stereotype, manipulative, duplicitous and self-interested.  She retreats into heterosexual respectability while poor Goosey retreats into madness. 

A lot of this book is really quite silly - apparently, you can become a lesbian through being snubbed by a man riding a horse across a marsh - and the narrative's attitude to its characters is often ambivalent.  Goosey is both pitied and blamed for her fate.  Like Radclyffe Hall's novel, it's also terribly earnest; although there are elements of the arch comedy that I enjoyed in The Tortoiseshell Cat, these sit awkwardly with the tragedy of Goosey's life. The writing is also quite variable in quality.  However, it is also interesting, mostly because it looks at Goosey and Almond's relationship in its context, showing the reactions of those around them,   Compared to other similar characters, Goosey and Almond are rooted in ordinary life, working, marrying, raising children; they are not rich, cultured or creative.  Royde-Smith also opens up the question of how much we should try to help the bewildered and lost when we meet them, of whether there is a wider responsibility for Goosey's despair.

The novel has been out of print for years, but second-hand copies are not that expensive.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Loving by Henry Green

It's Henry Green Week in literary blogworld, prompted by winstonsdad, and my choice from Green's nine novels is Loving, a 1945 novel set in an Irish country house during the Second World War.  Like most Irish country houses at that time it is owned by an English family, the Tennants, and mainly staffed by English servants.  Only widowed Mrs Tennant, her daughter-in-law Violet and Violet's two little girls are in residence, since Violet's husband Jack is serving in the British forces.  This little family requires a small army of servants to care for them and the house, and the narrative shows us much more of downstairs life, the adult Tennants being in England for a good stretch of the text.  At the start of the novel the butler, Mr Eldon, dies; his place is taken by the footman Raunce, much to the disgust of the housekeeper Miss Burch.  Housemaid Edith is not so repelled by Raunce, however, and the novel traces the development of their relationship through the tensions and anxieties of wartime life.  If you are being reminded of Downton Abbey at this point you are not alone, but don't let that put you off.

Tensions run high at the house; there are fears of German invasion, fears of the IRA, and many of the servants struggle with the guilt of having evaded war service in England.  Raunce is disliked by many of the servants; Kate, another maid, is jealous of her friend Edith's closeness to him, and Albert the pantry boy suffers both from unrequited love for Edith and from serving under Raunce.  The cook's nephew, another Albert, who comes to stay as an evacuee, is a powerfully disruptive force.  A valuable ring goes missing just before the Tennants leave for England; the combination of this loss with the prevailing wartime tensions creates an atmosphere of intense paranoia.  This is brilliantly evoked in Green's unique narrative style.

Green apparently disliked being called a modernist, but I'm not sure how else I would describe his prose.  There is no internal monologue; we only very occasionally hear a character's thoughts; and the narrative voice is flat, never commenting on how characters say or do things, simply describing plainly what they say and do.  Winstonsdad quotes James Woods on Green, showing how this was a deliberate strategy:

Green was obsessively concerned with the elimination of vulgar spoors of presence whereby authors communicate themselves to readers : he never internalized his characters thoughts hardly ever explained a characters motive ,and avoids the authorial adverb, which so often helpfully flags a character’s emotion to the reader (“she said grandiloquent” ). Green argued that dialogue is the best way to communicate with one’s reader and that nothing kills “life ” so much as explanation”.

As the reader, you are set down in the middle of dialogues or situations that you may not fully understand, where speech alludes to something you cannot know. The novel builds up layers of allusive meaning that you must interpret, driving the reader's imagination to fill in the gaps and colour the narrative with detail.  For me, this made the novel a compelling and satisfying read.  Green's prose might be flat but it is also frequently beautiful.  I particularly enjoyed the description of Albert the pantry boy playing blind man's buff:

Then it was his turn.  There was only Edith tall enough to tie him and as 'I love you I love you' was knotted over his eyes he quietly drew a great breath perhaps to find out if Edith had left anything on this piece of stuff.  He drew and drew again cautious as if he might be after a deep draught of her, of her skin, of herself.  He was puffed already when his arms went out to go round and round and round her.  But she was not there and for answer he had a storm of giggles which he could not tell one from another and which went ricocheting from stone cold bosoms to damp streaming marble bellies, to and from huge oyster niches in the walls in which boys fought giant boas or idled with a flute, and which volleyed under green skylights empty in the ceiling.  He went slow.  He could hear feet slither.  Then he turned in a flash.  He had Edith.  He stood awkward one hand on her stomach the other on the small of her back.

Blind man's buff is a fairly good metaphor for the position of the reader in this text, unable to see, needing to pay attention and interpret confusing sounds and actions.  The setting for this scene, a mock Greek temple, also brings out another aspect of Green's writing; throughout the novel I had the sense that there was a symbolic meaning to most of what I was reading, although like Albert I'm not sure that I grasped the half of it.  

Karyn at A Penguin a Week has also reviewed Loving.  Six of Henry Green's novels are still in print, in two compendium volumes published by Vintage.  I have Living and Party Going still to enjoy.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair

This 1919 novel is a strongly autobiographical Bildungsroman that takes Sinclair's heroine from rural Essex in the 1860s, the youngest child of middle-class parents, to middle age in Edwardian Yorkshire.  On the way she will live through the difficulties of getting an education, the possibilities of marriage, and above all the demands and complexities of family life.  Mary has three older brothers and her mother has hoped for a dutiful daughter, encouraging her from the early pages of the text to give up her own will.  But Mary is never entirely convinced that God really wants her to give up her will, and begins to speculate that it is more her mother's idea.  Despite her tendency towards autonomy, Mary is never entirely able to separate herself from her mother; they live on together through Mamma's widowhood, loving and hating each other in fairly equal measure.  But Mary, in her way, succeeds in preserving her own sense of self, and the novel closes on a personal, triumphant epiphany.

There is a lot to enjoy here.  There is the character of Mary herself, who turns from an engaging child to an engaged woman, and is never less than interesting, with her individual view of the world and her strong sense of beauty; there is a whole range of other fascinating characters, some who appear only briefly but still make their mark; there is the impact of philosophy and psychology, particularly Freud, on the text; and there is May Sinclair's prose.  The novel is structured episodically, in short sub-chapters that tell of key events in Mary's life and sometimes of dull, insignificant days.  Sometimes years pass in a few pages; other periods of time are expanded and considered in minute detail.  The narrative switches between Mary's first person interior monologue, another interior voice which uses the second person, and a third person narrator who is nonetheless narrating from Mary's point of view.  May Sinclair is known for her early engagement with modernism, both as critic and as artist, and the evidence of this is clear in this novel.  But she is not simply dabbling; her techniques are effective and sustained.

As Jean Radford points out in her introduction to the Virago edition, the novel is a bit long, possibly due to autobiographical fidelity, and some of the Freudian references seem a bit obvious to the modern reader.  While I'm not sure if the way Mary resolves her difficulties with life is a way I would choose myself, she remains for me an entirely believable and rather admirable character.  This is partly due to the remarkable number of difficulties that she has to face through her forty-five years, difficulties which often make the book rather sad reading.  Mary's story does provoke both pity and anger, particularly as the narrative reveals how much she has been betrayed by those who claim to love her.  However, the ending is redemptive for Mary, and left me with a sense of hope about the second half of her life. 

The Virago edition of this book is still in print and still has the same lovely George Clausen painting on the cover; there are also secondhand copies easily available.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

This collection, aside from the title story which takes us back to Howling before Flora Poste tidied up the unruly Starkadders, is rooted in the middle-class world of 1930s England.  Spinsters retire to country cottages, bohemian types are satirised, fey girls find suitable husbands, and intergenerational tensions simmer in suburbia.  This might be to do with the magazines that first carried these stories; The Lady, Good Housekeeping and Bystander were not - and are not in the case of the first two - known for their social radicalism.  Although the volume first appeared in 1940 there is no reference to the war, nor any intimation of it; I wonder if the book had a nostalgic appeal for those readers who opened it on publication.

There are two Christmas stories here: as well as the hilarious return to Cold Comfort, in "The Little Christmas Tree" novelist Rhoda Harting's first Christmas in her country cottage is interrupted and then taken over by some children who spin her a yarn about their wicked stepmother.  Stella Gibbons is rather good at awful but somehow charming children. I also enjoyed "Golden Vanity", in which a dreamy library assistant discovers that her favourite author, handsome Geoffrey Whithorne, is really a middle-aged woman called Alice Little, not least for its echoes of Secret Lives.  The stories have excellent shape and structure, and if the narrative voice is sometimes a little archly superior, it is never without humour.

However, I was slightly disturbed by the story called "Cake", in which modern career girl Jenny meets ageing militant suffragette Maud Allworton, and is inspired by her to take back her slightly drunk and adulterous husband so that they can have children.  I've read it twice now to try to work out what is going on.  The narrative point of view switches between Jenny's own, which shifts from complacently judgemental through utter self-doubt into hectic resolution through the story, and the omniscient narrator who is wearing an audible frown.   The narrator disapproves of Jenny, who initially cares only for money and self-advancement; Jenny and the narrator both disapprove of Miss Allworton, who gave up the chance of marriage for the suffragette cause.  Jenny is sarcastic about the gains made for women by the suffragettes, thinking them "such fools", but the suffragette's life story precipitates her rush to Victoria Station to take back her husband before it is too late.  She gets him back, but he rewards her change of heart by slapping her face - which she acknowledges she deserves.  This seems to me to be more than the small c-conservatism that Nicolas Lezard noted in his review of the book.  However, Jenny's nascent friendship with Miss Allworton, a mutual liking that transcends the prejudices of both women, warms what could be a chilly, depressing tale.  The ironic tone and ironic evolution of the characters make this story puzzling even when I find elements of it distasteful.  The title comes from Jenny's belief that 1930s women can have their cake and eat it too; unhappiness like Miss Allworton's comes from inefficient cake-management.

This seems to be a general problem I'm having with Stella Gibbons - the writing might be beautiful, the story well-crafted, and the jokes good, but there always seem to be things that make me wince studded through her work, like finding a bit of nutshell in a mouthful of well-managed cake.  For some alternative views, here are Desperate Reader and I Prefer Reading on the same book.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Secret Lives by E.F. Benson

This 1932 comedy of manners is set in Durham Square, a respectable if not yet fashionable London address populated with exactly the sort of people you might expect to find in an E.F. Benson novel.  Chief among these is Mrs Mantrip, who owns most of the freeholds in the square; her clergyman father, with reformist zeal and deep pockets, bought up the property in order to evict the prostitutes who were lowering the local moral tone.  Her neighbours (who are often also her tenants) include Elizabeth Conklin, who breeds Pekinese dogs; playful Jimmie Mason, with his extravagant musical parties and exotic guests; and lately Miss Susan Leg, who has furnished her house extravagantly and is irritating the Square with her love of writing to the accompaniment of very loud gramophone music.  The source of Susan's apparently vast income, like her social origins, is obscure.  Mrs Mantrip is the highbrow social arbiter of Durham Square but she nurtures a secret passion for the decidedly lowbrow works of Rudolph da Vinci which feature kidnappings, swarthy foreigners and an unusually large amount of flagellation.  Through a complicated dance of pseudonyms, impersonations and revelations, Rudolph's true identity will eventually be revealed.

Besides this main narrative runs a series of sub-plots extracting the maximum humour from the Square's residents, their snobberies, allegiances, quarrels and reconciliations.  Benson has a lot of fun with a campaign to enforce the rule against walking dogs in the Square's private gardens, as the opposing sides canvass opinion, co-opt supporters, and rig ballots, as well as depicting a vast number of dogs, some of which are made of wood and have wheels.  The Square has its fair share of quirky eccentrics: there is Mr Gandish with his overwhelming enthusiasm for badminton, Lady Eva who can see a halo around the head of any person, and read their character accordingly, and the Vicar who is devoted to yoga and theories of reincarnation.   All this will be familiar to readers of the Mapp and Lucia books; if this book doesn't reach the comic heights of those works, it is still very funny, and it also reaches beyond the upper-middle-class householders, bringing in Susan's admirable butler Bosanquet and her erstwhile colleague Minnie Mimps as players in the comedy.  Benson is particularly good at showing how forgiveness of slights and offences is much easier when it is socially expedient, because a neighbour has influence or just a very good cook.

Most interesting to me is the way Benson deals with lowbrow writing in a comic middlebrow text. His depiction of the self-important MP and literary critic Arthur Armstrong, who denounces Rudolph da Vinci's Rosemary and Rue in the strongest terms, suggesting it should be "annihilated", and is rewarded with a satirical portrait in Rudolph's next novel, is both funny and ironic, pointing out the hollowness at the centre of Armstrong's loudly-voiced opinions.  Rudolph's publisher reflects sadly that it would never do if his author "began to long for the appreciation of educated people, and in the effort to attain it might seriously imperil the gusto with which [he] wrote".  Even the lowbrow writer, Benson suggests, hopes for critical endorsement, although critical censure proves to be much better for sales.  By the end of the novel Mrs Mantrip's secret shame about her reading preferences is no longer, and she is able to speak frankly about her love for the works of Mr da Vinci, and remove the little curtain that has kept them out of sight in her library.

This book seems to be out of print although copies of the Hogarth Press paperback are available secondhand.